Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Required Reading for an Optimist

Here's some reading for the end of summer for an optimist.

The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley
A great book on how things do get better with time (even though there are hiccups along the way.) My favorite line, and now a quote on my blog, is the last line of his book: "Dare to be an optimist."

The Ascent of Money and Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson
Once again, great books on how things do get better with time (in most places.)

In all three of these books, the authors are interested in the question why did the economy start growing exponentially after around 1400 AD in the West, but stagnate or decline in the rest of the world (China, India, Africa, Middle East.) Ridley's answer seems to be that we allowed the exchange of ideas (or as he puts it...we allowed "ideas to have sex.")


I like Niall Ferguson's answer a little bit better. He breaks it down into 6 basic ideas ("the  killer apps") that allowed the Christian West to grow scientifically, technological, and economically. The "6 killer apps" are: Competition, Science, Property, Modern Medicine, Consumerism, & Work Ethic. What I like about the Ferguson's answer is that it's not one answer. A pure ideology that focuses only one of the "apps" doesn't work. For example, "only do science or medicine", "consume, consume, consume", "always forgiving your neighbor" or "always compete against your neighbor" are not good strategies for growing life or growing the global economy. Modern Western Civilization (paraphrasing Professor Timothy Shutt) is a balance of philosophies, that if taken individually to the extreme would contradict each other, but when taken together, create a balance that allows life to flourish. I'm not sure if Niall Ferguson has heard Prof. Shutt's lecture series, but Ferguson's idea of 6 killer apps is similar to Shutt's idea that the West did well after it learned to balance the best of each of the cultures before them, such as the agape/forgiveness in the Hebrew&Christian societies, the excellence/science/art/mathematics/competitiveness in the Greeks, and the law&order/technological skill in the Romans. When isolated, each of these cultures have significant problems. For example, Hebrew&Christian societies tend to outlaw usury, tend to have people focus on the next world, and tend to be easily taken over by other societies. The Greeks were so competitive that they never stopped fighting. And the Romans had a good idea (just keep growing and expanding), but they did so mostly by force and they never developed effective ways of governing the empire.

Each of Ferguson's 6 Killer Apps, if taken in isolation, would lead to a non-growing society. You can't just focus on Competition, Science, Property, Modern Medicine, Consumerism, & Work Ethic. It's the combination of apps that worked so well.

The question is: why did the West develop these apps and why didn't other places develop these apps? These apps had been available to other cultures. I think that we have to credit those philosophers like St. Thomas Aquinas who revived the study of Aristotle in the late Middle Ages. Aristotle's philosophy (being as expansive as it is) gives the underlying reasoning behind the 6 killer apps. Aristotle's focus on this world, i.e. his focus on how best to live in this world, helped get the West out of the Middle Ages. While a lot of what Aristotle wrote has to be adapted because of the shear amount of knowledge we now have, a lot of what Aristotle wrote is the truth or helps us reach the truth. For example, if you translate his word for the goal of life "eudaimonia" as flourishing (i.e. growing), then there is little difference between my philosophy of life and Aristotle's. (Aristotle stated that the teleological goal of life was "eudaimonia." If you translate this as "happiness through the use of your rational mind", then there is a difference between his philosophy of life and mine...as pointed out in this previous post.)

As I see it, the goal of life is to grow life. The "6 Killer Apps" as discussed by Niall Ferguson are means to an end, not ends in themselves. The end is growing life on this planet and on other planets. We need a balance between apps that, when looked at individually, could not fit together, but that when placed together, create a growing society. We need science, engineering, medicine, humanities, business, law, politics, individual rights, trust in society, the military, competitive sports, music, a love of the Good, a love of Truth, and a love of the Beautiful. While individually, we might focus more on one of these "apps" than the others, we need to make sure that we maintain a balance between these "apps" in our society. That is supposed to be the job of our politicians, and since we elect our politicians, that means it is our job to maintain the balance by electing politicians who understand that a growing society requires a compromise between the competing "apps" discussed above. There is also a lot that we can do individually to help maintain the balance, but this requires us to truthfully look out at society to determine if one of the "apps" is being neglected at a time when it should be at the fore ground.

The idea of balancing "apps" is just like Aristotle's idea of the mean between the extreme (i.e. take the middle ground most of the time, but know when is and when is not an appropriate time to show an extreme emotion or take an extreme position.) In other words, we should keep any one of the seemingly incompatible "apps" from taking over, but we should also know when it's okay to let one "app" take the fore ground of the public's attention and when to let another "app" take its place.

1 comment:

  1. p.s. if you need another book that's optimistic about the future, check out Harold Bloom's "The Genius of the Beast."
    In the book, Bloom walks us through the gradual progress of civilization...taking us through the ups and downs, and showing us that slowly over time we develop better and better ways of creating value and growing society.

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